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Themes in Oedipus the King

Fate vs. Free Will: The tension between Fate and Free Will dominates this play. Fate is a force beyond human control. It was believed to be a progression of events set in place for a person before birth. So powerful is the force of fate that Zeus himself could not defy his own. However, the concept of free will was also incredibly important to the Greeks. Thus, Oedipus’s prophecy becomes a “self-fulfilling” prophecy. He is free to choose all of his actions throughout the story. Ironically, these choices cause Oedipus to fulfill his tragic fate.

Sight and Blindness: Sight and blindness are inverted in the play. Though he is blind, Tiresias is able to see everything. Oedipus becomes the king because of his insight into the sphinx's riddle. However, he is blind to his own identity and crimes and literally blinds himself for his misdoings.

Pride: Greek tragedies often present a hero that is brought down by a “hamartia” or fatal flaw. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus’s fatal flaw is his pride. When Oedipus hears the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, he believes that he can escape his own fate. Oedipus is so prideful that he believes more in his own ability to exercise his freedom than he does in the power of the gods. This fatal flaw leads to his downfall.

Themes Examples in Oedipus the King:

Oedipus the King

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""who seeks shall find; Who sits with folded hands or sleeps is blind." ..."   (Oedipus the King)

By this statement, Creon means that the person who searches will find what they are looking for while the person who waits is “blind.” Blind in this context is more than a physical condition; it suggests a mental blindness to reality as well. Here, Creon introduces one of the main themes of this play: sight vs. blindness. While Oedipus is committed to finding the killer, he is blind to the reality that he is the killer. Oedipus’s denial is a kind of blindness to his situation that causes his ultimate downfall.

"O King Apollo! may his joyous looks Be presage of the joyous news he brings!..."   (Oedipus the King)

Apollo is the god of music, truth, healing, plague, and poetry. His shrine at Delphi housed a famous Oracle whose prophecies were both renowned and feared throughout the Greek city-states. However, Apollo also stood for light and reason. Here, Oedipus means that Creon is brilliant or radiant. Apollo's opposing attributes, both god of light and god of disease, underscore the key themes in the play.

"thou hast eyes, Yet see'st not in what misery thou art fallen,..."   (Oedipus the King)

It is ironic that Teiresias, the blind prophet, accuses Oedipus of not being able to see. In this context, Teiresias’s vision and Oedipus’s blindness are metaphorical and concern the domain of truth. This conception of vision as the capacity to confront truth is one of the play’s central themes. Oedipus will suffer for his own blindness because of his inability to accept Tiresias's prophecy.

"But Fate swooped down upon him..."   (Oedipus the King)

While Oedipus is willing to ascribe part of his ascension to Fate, he also puts great stock in his own volition. The conflict between Fate and free will, as well as the difficulty to discern between them at times, provides tension as the play progresses.

"I summon him to make clean shrift to me...."   (Oedipus the King)

The theme of transparency appears again as Oedipus asks for the culprit to “make clean shrift”—in other words, to confess his guilt. Although Oedipus has good intentions, his lack of recognition for the boundary between what things should be done privately and what can be done publicly suggests a sort of ignorance on his part.

"Look ye, countrymen and Thebans, this is Oedipus the great, He who knew the Sphinx's riddle and was mightiest in our state...."   (Oedipus the King)

In the closing of this drama, the Chorus tells the audience that while Oedipus's deeds were good, Fate still prevailed. The Chorus's message reminds the audience that as long as Fate has control, there can be no true happiness. One's skills, qualities, and faithfulness to the gods mean little if Fate has already placed that person on a particular path.

"So be it. I reck not how Fate deals with me But my unhappy children--for my sons Be not concerned, O Creon..."   (Oedipus the King)

Sophocles revisits the theme of inescapable Fate. Where Oedipus once tried to change destiny, he now accepts it. The tone here, though, is not one of welcome but of defeat. Oedipus now feels he is at the whim of the gods, of Fate, and that his choices have no bearing.

"Why should a mortal man, the sport of chance, With no assured foreknowledge, be afraid?..."   (Oedipus the King)

Oedipus has grown up believing Polybus and Merope to be his parents. In this exchange, while Oedipus grieves over his father’s death, he is pleased that this part of prophecy has been proved false. He expresses his worry about the other part, and Jocasta tells him that it is chance, not Fate, that rules lives. She mocks Fate, telling Oedipus that no one can see the future and that all prophecies are false. Her belief is that it is best to live in the moment rather than in obedience to Fate.

"A fell pollution that infests the land,..."   (Oedipus the King)

This “pollution” is what was known to the Greeks as miasma, a contagious power caused by crimes such as murder. It could only be purged through proper rituals that would lead to catharsis, the Greek concept of cleansing one’s emotions to experience renewal. The expanse of the pollution indicates the theme of the separation of private life versus public life, as a single person’s crime creates consequences for the community.

"Good news, for e'en intolerable ills, Finding right issue, tend to naught but good...."   (Oedipus the King)

Considering that the events of this play follow a prophecy, this is a curious statement. It suggests that nothing is concrete, that the future is not necessarily determined by past mistakes, but by how one elects to fix those mistakes. This idea of the variability of the future, as well as the recognition of one’s faults are themes that are brought up again later in the play.

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